Whittington and His Cat: The Encounter Between Cultures Illustrated

There’s no magic in the rags-to-riches story of  Dick Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London, shown at the left at the height of his fame from a chapbook ca. 1808 published by T. Sabine and son (Cotsen 154124).  The orphan owes his fortune to a cat whose special power is the ability to slaughter enormous numbers of mice and rats in short order.  The scene, which realigns the boy’s stars, is set in a faraway land with there are no felines, but many of us probably don’t remember it is somewhere in the East. The history of its illustration is interesting for a twist that seems to have gone unnoticed.

Here’s a summary of the events leading up to the scene. Dick was a scullion employed by Mr. Fitzwarren, a wealthy merchant.  His life was made miserable by the tyrannical cook and the vermin overunning his attic room. With a penny received for an errand, he purchased a cat, who eradicated them  When Fitzwarren had a ship ready to depart to foreign lands, he always invited every member of the household to invest.  As capital, Dick put in  the cat, being his only piece of property (illustrated to the left from The famous and remarkable history of Sir Richard Whittingon (1656). The master’s ship was driven ashore on a part of the Barbary Coast where no Englishmen had landed.  The resident Moors received the British graciously and the King was so pleased by the goods he was shown that the captain and the factor were invited back to the palace.  A sumptuous feast was laid out, but no one could enjoy a bite because a torrent of rats and mice befouled and devoured everything.  The king vowed it would be worth half his treasury to control the beasts, so the factor had the brilliant idea of bringing Dick’s cat to the palace.   Puss was expecting kittens very soon, but in spite of her condition, she was so efficient that a  king’s ransom was given for her and her litter in order to decimate the country’s population of rats and mice.

How has this scene showing an exchange between two cultures, religions and races been depicted over time?  Given the outline of the story, it lends itself to dramatic treatment rather than cultural commentary and that is how it was presented in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century chapbooks.  The first one comes from The famous and remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington (1656), the second from The Children in the Wood, to which is added The History of R. Whittington (London: Sabine and Son, ca. 1810) The one on top ignores the text and does not darken the King of Barbary’s skin–it’s his headware and slippers with the pointed toes that mark him as an exotic foreigner.  In the second cut, turbans capped with crowns and skin color distinguish the King and Queen from the European visitor, but all the figures have been cut in such a rudimentary fashion that it would be difficult to see in them reflections of actual attitudes towards the other.

Although smaller than the first two examples, these blocks from an early nineteenth provincial chapbook, Whittington and his Cat (Otley, York: W. Walker, ca. 1820: Cotsen 150398)  are by two hands.  But even the less accomplished of the two represents the European as more noble and civilized than his Black Moorish hosts, whose features look as if they have been gouged into the block.  Neither the king nor queen wear the flowing robes associated with Moors and it’s hard to say if they are supposed to wearing the native dress of a particular country or if they came out of the cutter’s imagination.

The hand-colored engraved frontispiece of The History of Whittington and his Cat (London: Orlando Hodgson, 1833: Cotsen 95990) above  transformed the King of Barbary into the Emperor of Morocco, who seems to be wearing vaguely Chinese finery and forsaken a turban.   What has precipitated this change?   Perhaps that this illustration was influenced by a popular stage production. While the publisher Hodgson, is best known for his satirical political prints, he also issued toy theaters, many of whose scripts were based on the best known contemporary plays, and versions of fairy tales not taken from the originals, but from the versions that held the stage for some time.

December 26th 1815, the pantomime Harlequin Whittington premiered at  Covent Garden Theater, praised by the European Magazine for the beautiful scenery and well-staged stunts, which included a balloon ascent and a final production number punctuated by fireworks.    In the cast was the beloved clown Joey Grimaldi who delivered the showstopping number, “All the World’s in Paris.”    There was no  Emperor of Morocco listed as a character in the early playbills I could access, but it may have been better for business to emphasize the spectacular effects and Grimaldi’s hit song.

But the subsequent history of Whittington on the stage suggests that the scene where the foreign king is astounded by a cat would continue to change. The folk tale quickly became established in the nineteenth century as among the most popular subjects for pantomime productions. While the Emperor of Morocco can be found in the programs’ dramatic personae, it is clear that the character no longer owed much to the traditional chapbook. Late in the Victorian period, the role was assigned to the First Boy,  a charming young actress whose legs could be shown to advantage by the costume designer (this drawing is reproduced from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum).  And a highly unscientific search for pictures of the Emperor in contemporary productions did not (unsurprisingly) turn up Black actors or white men in black face playing the part.

Joining Jarvis D. Braham’s Swimming School in 1838 Boston.

The printer's name, S. N. Dickinson is visible in the lower left hand corner of the receipt. Cotsen 30631.

The printer’s name, S. N. Dickinson is visible in the lower left hand corner of the receipt. Cotsen 30631.

It’s too hot and humid this Fourth of July weekend to write about anything except cooling down in the pool.   This little receipt documents Henry Brown’s membership in the Swimming School operated by Jarvis Braman in Boston near Chesnut Street at the foot of Beacon Hill.  It opened its doors in 1836 and after the old man’s death in 1850, his son Jarvis Dwight continued to manage the business at least until 1872, according to Boston city directories.  The Bramans were not the first to operate a pool in Boston; that distinction belongs to Francis Lieber, who opened one in 1826 at the short-lived Boston Gymnasium.  Although the reason given for withdrawing support was that the exercises were too vigorous, there were uncomfortable questions about whether women and African-Americans should be allowed access.

Henry paid for admission on June 10, 1838 and it looks as if he were member number 52.  He did not sign up for lessons or a bathing costume, so perhaps he had learned to swim the previous year and now needed access to keep up his strokes, strength, and stamina. The $5.00 fee sounds very reasonable, even without any indication of how many months’ admission he signed up for.  That $5.00, however, had the purchasing power of $136.00 in today’s currency, so it was probably a lot for many people to pay.  Certainly less affluent Bostonians availed themselves of Braman’s public bath at a different address.

The back of the receipt states all the rules governing members.  Opening hours were between sunrise to sunset.  No swimming naked: the drawers were for the swimmer’s safety as well as modesty, because proficient swimmers were designated by the red cords around their waists. The interpretation of rule 8 poses a few difficulties. Does “interfere” mean no rough housing or horse play?  Or no physical contact of any sort between boys to forestall the temptation of self-pollution?  Rule 6, which states that boys may not go into any other boys’ apartments, suggests that management felt obligated to try and maintain their scholars’ purity.

Things on the Continent do not seem to have been quite so regimented, at least in book illustrations where children are shown swimming outside in idyllic settings.  In this German salute to the seasons, July was the time for swimming.  The boys are shown  a garment that looks like a modern pair of trunks, although they were probably made of woven cloth, not a knitted jersey.  Perhaps American boys wore something similar.

Ein Jahr und seine Freuden, between 1840 and 1850? This board book of hand-colored lithographs has no publishing information. Cotsen 31899.

G. de Pomaret, Les Diables a quatre. Illustrated by Petit and F. Appel. Paris: Theodore Lefevre, 1892. Cotsen 10780.

This illustration of a French Famous Five offers an interesting contrast to the previous illustration.  Coed bathing seems not to have been forbidden.  Certainly the children’s costumes are less revealing than the German ones.  The boy’s chest is covered up, but the trunks are shorter. The girls are wearing suits in two pieces, with the waists defined by drawstrings.  Their shorts come to the knee instead of mid-thigh.  The hems of the blouses and shorts are trimmed.  Everyone has short sleeves, conducive to getting what used to ungraciously be called a “farmer’s tan” in Southern California.  Did anyone in the nineteenth century use some kind of sunscreen to prevent sunburn????

To see more children enjoying swimsr, visit Cotsen’s virtual exhibition Water Babies.